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Impact field of Canadian documentary films

Impact field of Canadian documentary films

‘Impact producing’ is an emerging field within documentary film that combines creative distribution, coalition building and audience engagement to build formalized campaigns for social change. As the name implies, impact producing seeks to maximize the impact of documentary films, and to increase the capacity of documentary filmmakers to effect social change.

Tamo Campos

Early this year, MES student Tamo Campos was awarded a MITACS Accelerate research internship grant to do action research on the impact field of Canadian documentary films with independent media -- Story Money Impact (SMI) Film Society. With Martha Stiegman  and Leesa Fawcett as academic supervisors, the action research explored the growing field of impact producing in Canada. The field involves creating partnerships between documentary films and existing social movements and the nonprofit sector exploring the questions of how impact producing can contribute to meaningful social change, what are the main skills needed to become an impact producer, and how do we train people to become impact producers.

In collaboration with SMI, Tamo designed a research project that involved two parts -- the first component was a design of a syllabus and curriculum for SMI’s impact producing POD Program. The POD is a 15-week online program that trains individuals across so-called Canada with the skills and toolbox of an impact producer. In addition, he collaborated with the campaigns of three films --  No Visible Trauma, Kimapiiyipitsini: The Meaning of Empathy, and Klabona Keepers --  in SMI’s Story to Action program, as well as interviewed filmmakers about their experiences working with an impact producer.

“My MES research at York University explores the growing field of ‘impact producing’ in so-called Canada. The term ‘impact producing’ describes an emergent field within Canadian documentary that combines distribution, community outreach and audience engagement into formalized campaigns for social change, “ says Campos. As the Documentary Organization of Canada explains, “impact producers devise and execute a strategic campaign including distribution, communications, outreach, social engagement and marketing to maximize the social impact of a film,” he adds.

A subsection of his research involves the examination of the impact strategies being used for The Klabona Keepers. Campos made the film over the course of eight years and tells the story of a small Indigenous community fighting to protect their Sacred Headwaters. The Klabona Keepers is an intimate portrait of the dynamic Indigenous community that succeeded in protecting the Sacred Headwaters, known as the Klabona, northwest British Columbia, from industrial activities.

Rhoda Quock and Caden Jakesta in the Klabona Keepers  film which premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The film just had 4 sold out screenings at the VIFF where the Elders won the Audience Choice and Rob Steward award.

Spanning 15 years of matriarch-led resistance, the film follows a small group of determined elders in the village of Iskut as they heal from the wounds of colonization to push back against law enforcement, the government, and some of the world’s largest multinational companies. Nestled between scenes of stand-offs and blockades, land defenders reflect on how their history of forced displacement, residential schools, and trauma strengthened their resolve to protect the very land that was essential to their healing journey.

The Klabona Keepers is an intimate portrait of the dynamic Indigenous community that succeeded in protecting the remote Sacred Headwaters in NW British Columbia. Photo credit: Hannah Campbell.

The documentary was made by Campos and Jasper Snow-Rosen, two non-Indigenous film makers, who happened to stop at the Iskut gas station in 2013. What was meant to be a pit stop turned into a conversation, then an invitation and finally being asked by the community to film their action. The Klabona Keepers were in the midst of mounting active blockades against Fortune Minerals in the Klappan area. The two filmmakers used their cameras and gear to upload footage of the blockades, allowing the community to gain crucial media attention by shining a spotlight on what was happening. Their quick dip into Iskut turned into seven weeks on the blockade, and their lives were turned upside down by the courageous stand of the Iskut elders. Inspired by the strength and purpose of the Klabona Keepers, the two filmmakers visited the region for months every year to connect with the community, whether filming blockades, supporting youth outdoor trips, or simply nurturing friendships

Blockade in 2013 with Chaz & Robert. Photo: Tamo Campos, Beyond Boarding Collective.

“Positioning myself as a settler within an Indigenous community has been the initial step upon which to begin analyzing our relationship. How does one decolonize methodologies of collaborative film production and impact campaigns? Although our process was highly collaborative, there is no such thing as neutral art. We constantly questioned the ways we were framing the storyline, as a way to examine the politics and ethics of our representation of others’ stories,” notes Campos.

I found myself repeatedly asking: ‘why am I the person to tell this story?’, ‘how am I telling it?’, ‘what assumptions do I bring to this story?’ and ‘what blindspots do I bring in?’. These questions and concerns continually framed our approach during the filmmaking process. Having the intellectual property owned by the main participants and land defenders flips this paradigm by having the film team serve its protagonists and the larger social movement. It is not an honor to have your story told by someone, but rather an honor and privilege to tell someone else’s story,” he remarks.

Indeed, the Klabona Keepers gives a unique example of the ways an impact producer can be embedded throughout the filmmaking process. Campos and Snow-Rosen did not have a formal theoretical model during their filmmaking process, but rather embodied an understanding that it was a privilege and a gift to put together the story, and that it would be inappropriate to benefit from the financial and emotional sacrifice of a 15-year land defense struggle. The film was made with constant collaboration and direction from the elders. They have volunteered their time and structured it so the intellectual property of the film is owned by the elders within it. The elders have also decided that all proceeds from screening the film go towards Iskut youth programming in the threatened Klabona area. In many ways, the Klabona Keepers film is a gift and a love letter to the community that changed their lives.

“The community of Iskut successfully defended their traditional territory against natural gas drilling and coal mining,” says Assistant Professor Martha Stiegman. “This is what the assertion of Indigenous jurisdiction, of Indigenous law looks like. It is the kind of climate action all Canadians need to find ways to support – in working towards reconciliation, and in the name of ensuring a livable planet for future generations. The collaborative process Tamo and Jasper used in making The Klabona Keepers, and the impact campaign they are building with this film, does just that.” 

I hope my research has supported new understandings around the filed of impact producing. When we embark on each film campaign, we have to be prepared to be changed by it. We have to be open to go with the flow, to learn, to unlearn and to truly carry an adaptable lens in which to see the work. It is a model that can be so deep in relationship with people, passion and histories, that it is easy how we would fall in love with this work itself.

Klabona Keepers at film screening in Toronto. Photo credit: Patagonia Store.

Campos wishes that the film sparks a continued fight for the land and justice for the families of the Klabona Keepers. “I hope that facilitating these spaces and building this film will inspire the next generation of organizers and land defenders to step into the community organizing boots of their grandparents.”

In reflecting on the field Campos shares that “Impact producing is not limited to the ideas, structures and skill sets mentioned in this master’s project. These are my own interpretations and experiences in the field. Even within that, I think there is much room to grow. As impact producing becomes more professionalized, I am aware of the need to entrench deep anti-oppressive values, practices and models within the field. We must create accessible and diverse opportunities and ethical guidelines when it comes to impact production.”

“This opportunity for me to research the experience of filmmakers and the impact of their campaigns offered significant breadth and depth of exposure to this field. Through this research, I was able to grow deeper relationships with an organization by which I continue to be inspired. I am grateful for this connection, trust and relationship with SMI, which enabled me to build such a large amount of experiences within a short time. I am indebted to the good work of their staff, board and community,” he concludes.

Campos is a filmmaker, impact producer, community organizer and extreme sports athlete. His films include Klabona Keepers (2022),  Ru-Tsu (2020), The Radicals (2018), A Last Stand For Lelu (2016), Northern Grease (2013) and more than 50 shorts. Campos embeds himself in the community wherever he goes and is dedicated to combining social impact with his adventures in sport, activism and filmmaking. His previous projects have had a strong outreach focus that collaborated deeply with participants within his films. His work has focused on Indigenous land defense, Indigenous health models, climate justice and anti-racism. He is also the co-founder of the non-profit collective Beyond Boarding, and a board member of Rediscovery International. Campos is also currently an Impact Fellow for Story Money Impact, a Canadian organization growing the field of impact producing.